Shaka Hislop’s summer at NASA
The ex- Trinidad shot- stopper swapped star- gazing for hero status at Pompey and more
How did you get into football growing up, and why did you become a goalkeeper?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve played football. Everyone plays sport in Trinidad and Tobago – given the hot weather, you can play outdoors all year. Most people play football or cricket. I remember Trinidad and Tobago were putting together a national under- 12s football team and my dad took me along to the regional trials. I’d never played in goal before, but as I was walking up to register for the try- outs, the coach looked at me and said, “You’re the tallest, you’re the keeper.” That was the first time I’d played in goal. I made the regional team and then eventually went on to make the national side.
How did the Reading move come about?
I’d been at university in the US on a football scholarship, and did a summer internship at NASA a year before graduating. After getting my degree in mechanical engineering, I was drafted by an indoor soccer team called the Baltimore Blast. This was before the days of MLS. As it turned out, Baltimore were about to tour England. We played Aston Villa twice; Dwight Yorke – another Trinidadian – had signed for them a couple of years previously. I played in both games and did pretty well. A Reading scout spotted me there, then the club got in touch and offered me a trial. They handed me a contract two months later.
You were a key part of a successful era at Reading, winning promotion to the second tier and coming so close to reaching the Premier League [ losing the 1995 play- off final 4- 3 to Bolton]. How was that period?
I didn’t miss a game in the promotion season [ 1993- 94] and we went up to what is now the Championship. It was a big jump. First of all,
you have to give credit to the manager, Mark Mcghee, for showing faith in me, especially given some of the inconsistency that comes with being a young keeper. The team played really well, and when you’re in a winning side confidence grows. I enjoyed the next couple of years a lot. We played well and got results. My confidence steadily grew, as did my own status within the team and within the game.
How did it feel to join Newcastle in 1995? The club would rival Manchester United for the Premier League title that season...
It was an unbelievable challenge. Six months before I signed, Andy Cole had been sold to Man United, so Newcastle invested heavily that summer. They brought in Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Warren Barton and me. It was a big step up, but the good thing for me was that their other goalie, Pavel Srnicek, had got sent off at the end of the previous campaign. He was suspended for the first two matches, so I had a chance to prove myself from the start. I played, we won both games and as the cliché goes, you don’t change a winning team. I kept my place and we kicked off that season with nine wins out of 10.
Looking back, should Newcastle have won the title in your first season?
Yes. It still hurts to let as big a lead slip as we did [ 12 points], but Man United knew how to chase teams down. They had the experience of winning league titles and we didn’t. I think that told – especially in the match we played against them at St James’ Park, where Peter Schmeichel put in an incredible display. Eric Cantona grabbed the headlines for his goal, though, and they edged it 1- 0. That signalled a massive shift in momentum and they went on to win the league.
What was Kevin Keegan like to play under?
I loved it. Kevin was about playing attacking and exciting football. As a keeper you knew that you would be left exposed at times, but that’s the kind of team you want to play for. The excitement is there for everyone to see when the players and supporters respond to it. It was a great time – I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Newcastle.
How big for your career was the chance to move to West Ham in 1998 and become an undisputed first choice there?
In my final season with Newcastle, I’d played quite a few matches and managed to keep [ recent arrival] Shay Given out for a little bit, but then things changed and he became the number one. My contract was expiring and the Bosman ruling was a new thing. I wanted to be a club’s first choice. Down at West Ham, Ludek Miklosko was nearly 37, so they were looking for someone to come in and take his place. I chatted to the boss, Harry Redknapp, about the opportunity and it felt right. I didn’t hesitate in making the move.
You made more than 100 Premier League appearances during your first of two spells at West Ham. What were the highlights of that initial period?
We came fifth in that first season, which is still West Ham’s highest ever Premier League finish. I was named the player of the season that year and, albeit indirectly through the Intertoto Cup, we brought European football back to Upton Park. Those are the things I’m most proud of. More than two decades later we still hold that record of the club’s greatest Premier League finish, and just being part of UEFA Cup nights at Upton Park [ against Osijek and Steaua Bucharest] was special.
Yes, it was all because of Harry. I thoroughly enjoyed playing under him for three seasons at West Ham. In my final year I was second choice to David James and the manager was Glenn Roeder, who I didn’t get on with. Once Harry called and said he wanted me to come down to the south coast, and told me about his ambitions for the club, I was sold. That was probably the easiest sale Harry has ever had to make. Given how well I’d played under him before, I wouldn’t have hesitated about joining him anywhere else.
Portsmouth were dominant en route to the First Division title in 2002- 03...
We really were. Paul Merson came in, but we had many other players who were significant. In particular Linvoy Primus, who’s a player I became very friendly with and our families remain close to this day. He was somebody who represented everything that was good about Pompey. As far as I know, Harry tried to move him on at the start of that season but couldn’t. Linvoy stayed and played for his spot, and he was brilliant. As much as Merse hogged the headlines, Linvoy epitomised the character of the team.
Avoiding relegation from the top flight in your first season must have also felt like an incredible achievement...
The focus was just on staying up. We found it very hard at first and were struggling. Then we played Liverpool in the FA Cup at Fratton Park and beat them 1- 0. All of a sudden, that kick- started our push for survival. We won six of our last 10 games and got ourselves out of the bottom three. It was an exciting finish given how difficult we’d found it at the start.
Why did you rejoin West Ham in 2005?
I thought Portsmouth were going to offer me a player- coach job. That didn’t materialise, so I was out of contract. I was 36 and hadn’t played for about four months, but I got a call from Alan Pardew asking if I’d come to West Ham. They’d just signed Roy Carroll and Alan wanted somebody with experience to push him a little bit. I felt like I’d left Upton Park on a sour note because of my bad relationship with Roeder, so it was a good opportunity for me to go back.
What are your memories of playing in the 2006 FA Cup Final against Liverpool, which you were minutes away from winning until Steven Gerrard’s famous equaliser?
It was an incredible experience – everything about it. I went to the 1998 FA Cup Final with Newcastle, but had to watch from the bench. Knowing that I was going to face Liverpool, one of the truly big clubs in English football – and at the Millennium Stadium – was magic. As a kid growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, I loved watching the FA Cup on TV, so it was the stuff boyhood dreams are made of. We nearly had the cup won, but it just wasn’t to be in the end.